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NTIA Won't Get Access To Coupon Money Immediately

The National Telecommunications & Information Administration still has 4.2 million requests for analog-to-digital converter box subsidy coupons on its waiting list as 421 more stations prepare to pull the plug on analog just before midnight Tuesday night.

At $40 apiece for those coupons, NTIA would need $168 million and several weeks to get all those folks off the list.

President Barack Obama is expected Tuesday to sign the economic stimulus package that containts $650 million for the coupon progrm and associated DTV education and outreach efforts. But NTIA will not get access to the money immediately. It will have to wait as much as a week to start clearing the backlog, according to an NTIA spokesperson, because the money has to go through the appropriations process before NTIA can get access to it.

"We still need to go through the regular process of going to OMB and getting an account number," said the spokesperson. "I believe it will take a week, or less, after the bill is signed if it goes through the regular process.” A spokesman for Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WVA), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, agreed. "The money isn't instantly there," he said.

Then it will take two or three weeks to clear up the list, NTIA has said.

That would make it mid-March before the list is tidied up, or just about the same time (March 14) that stations that did not pull the plug on or before Feb. 17--there are 641 of those--can start doing so if they have let the FCC and viewers know first.

Rockefeller's office had no comment on the stations in DTV at-risk markets that weighed in at the FCC over the weekend either saying they were delaying pulling the plug Feb. 17 or committing to conditions that allowed them to do so. "I think everybody has to wait to see what happens tomorrow morning," said the spokesman.

Rockefeller co-authored the bill to move the analog shut-off hard date to June 12, primarily because that NTIA coupon waiting list was growing and could disproportionately impact poorer, older, rural and minority viewers.

The program still has money in it, but can't access it due to an accounting issue. Had the Congress voted to resolve that accounting issue, NTIA could have immediately begun processing the delayed coupons, but the stimulus package creates a new appropriation that must run that brief, bureacratic gauntlet first.